“WELCOME TO SIDE two of the Joshua Tree cassette,” Bono announced to the Croke Park crowd, around an hour in to tonight’s triumphant homecoming gig, drawing knowing laughs (from the over-35s, at least).
It came out 30 years ago and it’s taken us 30 years to figure out some of these songs – not just how to play them, but to understand what they’re about.
The Joshua Tree album – still their best known, three decades on – arrived in the world during a tumultuous time, towards the end of the Reagan administration.
Members of the band have made the case that 2017 seemed an appropriate time to revisit their landmark work. Announcing the tour, guitarist The Edge noted that the songs were written at a time “with global upheaval, extreme right wing politics and some fundamental human rights at risk”.
They also insisted, however, it wasn’t going to be a “nostalgia thing”.
As a result, unlike some other ‘heritage’ rock acts, there were no displays of archive clips or photos of the band in their younger days on the screen tonight.
Instead, widescreen landscapes of the American west, shot by longtime U2 collaborator Anton Corbijn, allowed songs we’ve all heard a thousand times to breathe new life.
‘Less is more’ could have been the mantra: the four members started the show from a smaller, satellite stage with a set of songs from War and The Unforgettable Fire – the two albums that preceded The Joshua Tree.
The enormous screen shimmered to life as the intro to the 1987 album’s first track, Where The Streets Have No Name, gathered pace.
The widescreen video pieces steered clear of fast-paced editing, for the most part. Rolling skyscapes, character studies and timelapse films instead filled the epic backdrop.
The crowd knew they were in for a unique night when four jets staged a tricolour-themed fly-past, just as ‘Streets’ built to its crescendo.
The cinematic flourishes were pared back at several points: for Running to Stand Still, a song about heroin addiction in the Ballymun flats, the camera focused on Bono, with the stadium as a backdrop. Later, during Mothers of the Disappeared – which examines the crimes of South American dictatorships – a line of female figures clutching candles was displayed.
Bullet the Blue Sky, which, in the past, has been used on more than one occasion as a vehicle for the singer’s trademark speeches, was truncated to something closer to the original – but a lot more muscular.
That’s not to say there was no mention of politics – this was a U2 concert after all.
‘Miss Sarajevo’, the first track after the Joshua Tree section, was played to a backdrop of scenes from the warzones of Syria, and to more hopeful scenes from a refugee camp.
Bono also made time to welcome “our chieftains” Michael D Higgins and Leo Varadkar, who were watching from the stands, describing both as “gamechangers”.
Direct mentions of Trump were limited – the only time his name (or rather, that of a fictional namesake) cropped up was in footage from an old Western TV series.
Later, Hillary Clinton’s image flashed by – part of a compilation of images of trailblazing women – during ‘Ultraviolet’. Nell McCafferty, the anti-apartheid striking Dunnes Stores workers, Veronica Guerin and Mary McAleese were among the Irish figures honoured in the video piece.
Another Achtung Baby song provided the final sing-along moment of the night – as the house lights were brought down, and the phone torches switched on for ‘One’.
Achtung Baby was, of course, the album the band produced after vowing to go away and “dream it all up again” after The Joshua Tree and the similarly US-inspired Rattle and Hum.
Back in the present day – there’s no talk as yet of any re-staging of the Achtung Baby-era songs as a set-piece show.
The band hope to have their next album, Songs of Experience, out next year. A tour to follow that is already in the planning stages.
Bear in mind, however, that The Joshua Tree 2017 is on track to become biggest grossing international tour of the year – selling 2.4 million tickets in North and South America, and in Europe.
It may be the first time U2 has gone down the tried-and-tested route of touring a classic album. But it’s working for them – and it’s worked well for bands of a similar vintage in the past. Zoo TV 2022, anyone?
- Yes there really is an old TV western with a villain called Trump who promised to build a wall. Watch a clip here.
- Michael D Higgins received a standing ovation as he arrived to his seat, just ahead of the concert. Two standing ovations, in fact – some of the crowd took a while to figure out who had arrived.
- Support act Noel Gallagher advised the crowd to “enjoy the local band coming on next”.